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20 Years of Democracy and Music

By Sihle Mthembu

South Africa is a nation built on optimism even in the face of unrelenting adversity. Both historically and in the present, music has played a key part in showcasing the restlessness of its people. Prior to the release of Nelson Mandela and the arrival of democracy in 1994, music provided the soundtrack for the political and moral struggles of the country’s sons and daughters. Across color lines, South Africa has collectively developed a discography that speaks to the contradictions that exist—something that has remained true throughout the dark days of Apartheid and continues in these uncertain times of freedom.

The first 20 years of South Africa’s democracy have been filled with highlights and disappointments.

Although South Africa is still considered to be a developing country, it is musically very mature. In our not too distant past, music was a form of protest and resistance against the Apartheid state. It was an era in which jazz and roots maestros like Busi Mhlongo, Miriam Makeba, Dudu Pukwana, and other pioneers told stories about a nation in waiting. But now that democracy is here, what does this mean for the relevance of these works and what does the current crop of musicians have to say about the country today? This is a conversation that South Africa, its music lovers, and the global music fraternity is constantly having with itself.

The first 20 years of South Africa’s democracy have been filled with highlights and disappointments. Stories of corruption and successes are part and parcel of South Africa’s daily experience—from free and fair general elections, to a nation ravaged by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, from being the first country on the continent to legalize gay marriage, to having one of the worst crime rates in the world.

More than optimism, South Africa is also becoming a nation built entirely on contradictions. Whereas we have one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, the lives of women and the LGBT community are more vulnerable than ever. And this friction is always being documented and questioned through our nation’s music. As blues chanteuse Thandiswa Mazwai points out, “There is a restlessness that comes with freedom because in freedom the enemies are harder to identify.” This constant tugging and pushing between the musician and the society in which he operates has led to a wealth of new music since 1994.

The last 20 years of South Africa’s music—much like its politics—has been categorized by experimentation and attempts at finding a new way. The early days of the country’s democracy were accompanied by the restless beats of Kwaito, a fast-tempo sound that mixed elements of dance music with township slang and intricate dance sequences. It was a sound born on the streets of the newly freed society, spreading like wildfire to all corners of the country. It was the music of the underclass and found its audience because it showcased a young generation’s desire to differentiate itself from the past.

At the dawn of the 21st century, the genre was a staple of the South African music scene. But as our country became more and more embedded in the global context, the growing influence of foreign genres and the desire for artists and music lovers to explore new modes of music making has meant that Kwaito as a standalone genre has all but died out. This demise has also been fuelled by the fact that Kwaito itself was the soundtrack for a more optimistic future; as millennials grew more disillusioned with this, its relevance also faded.

Following the decline of Kwaito, South Africans needed a genre that would provide pure escapism. In this way, house music has become one of the most common sounds in South Africa. It has found its audience because its custodians were not DJing in the clubs, but rather taking their art directly to the people. Everyday citizens (often passively) listen to house music as it blares from the speakers of the hundreds of thousands of mini-bus taxis that travel the city streets.

But as South Africa enters its post-democratic stage, the interest in genres that were not visible in the past has grown, as has the interest in no genres at all. These new sounds are driven by a highly active youth culture that is interested in consumption. South Africa’s fluid cultural landscape has also played a huge role in the rise of a new age of music makers in this country. As people from the world’s diverse cultures arrive in South Africa, they will inevitably add their own flavor to this ever-changing musical landscape, leaving a lasting impression on the next generation of musicians and producers. This is already being heard with such acts as rapper Tumi Molekane and the now defunct Volume, Zaki Ibrahim, Okmalumkoolkat, BLK JKS, Simphiwe Dana, and Spoek Mathambo—all who are undeniably part of an ongoing global music tradition while also being locally relevant.

This new wave of post-pop musicians are blurring the lines of color, class, and genre as they appropriate complex sounds in a bid to make every corner of South African identity their own. There is a voracious sampling of songs from the past, as artists attempt to create new sonic intersections. These musicians are finding new ways to artistically meet their predecessors—their music always flashing back, referencing and mining its past because South Africa is a country that is always trying to remember.

This new wave of post-pop musicians are blurring the lines of color, class, and genre ...

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